Wheat Allergy and Gluten Sensitivity Can Damage Your Health

September 3, 2014 (Updated: July 31, 2017)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

If you’re like many Americans, you probably started your day with some whole-grain cereal and toast, had a sandwich for lunch, and enjoyed a pasta dish for dinner.

At some point during the day, you may have wondered why you were having trouble concentrating or had to read something two or three times to “get it.” Or maybe you felt great for a few minutes, then not-so-great for hours after each meal.

We all have “off” days. But when you find yourself wondering, day in and day out, why your memory is so bad or your head throbs, why you’re anxious or depressed, or if you’re just losing your mind, please read on.

There is a revolution taking place in nutrition today. Whole grains are not what they used to be. Decades of tinkering to make wheat more productive and profitable have transformed the grain from a healthy choice into the food version of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.

If you are at all concerned about your brain’s welfare, if you cherish your memories, and want nothing more than to age gracefully, with your thought processes intact, you must rework your diet.

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, is linked to many of these wheat-related health issues.

Mention problems with wheat and it’s only natural to think of celiac disease, a gluten-triggered autoimmune disorder that damages the digestive system. But the truth is, people without celiac disease also suffer from wheat-related brain and nervous system problems.

Research shows that wheat and gluten create deadly inflammation, a condition believed to be at the root of nearly all illness. For the brain, that can mean everything from ADHD and schizophrenia to mood swings, migraines, mental malfunctions, and movement problems.

These problems occur in otherwise healthy people who may be sensitive or allergic to wheat or gluten. Experts estimate as many as 20 million Americans who do not have celiac disease are sensitive to gluten.

You can be tested for wheat and gluten allergy and sensitivity through various labs. This service can be helpful for someone who knows something is wrong, but their doctor doesn’t know what’s causing it.

Or you can try an elimination diet: avoid wheat, rye, and barley for 30 days, and see how you feel. That’s what I recommended for a patient I’ll call Jerome who came to see me recently with a common problem – a possible case of Parkinson’s complicated by serious brain fog (mental dysfunction).

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Jerome’s wife, Carol, insisted he come to my clinic because she’d heard me speak once on memory problems. “I know there’s something wrong with Jerry,” she explained, “but we’ve seen three doctors and had three different diagnoses. I’m hoping you can figure out what’s really going on with him.”

Along with the brain fog, Jerome was experiencing tremors in his hands. His regular doctor suspected Parkinson’s. One neurologist thought the problem was benign essential tremor, a condition similar to Parkinson’s. But a second neurologist diagnosed a different Parkinson’s-like condition known as Wilson disease.

Neurological conditions can be tough to pin down, even with all our diagnostic tools. But even with blood and urine tests, CT scans, and MRIs, doctors cannot definitively tell if a person has Parkinson’s. No wonder as many as one-fourth of all Parkinson’s diagnoses are wrong.

After taking a detailed history from Jerry and gathering information from Carol about their lifestyle, I suggested a simple dietary intervention, one that turned their lives around. If you’d like to try it, too, here’s how it works.

The couple had been vegetarians for more than a decade. And wheat was a huge part of their diet. Emerging studies were showing that wheat and grains could no longer be considered healthy, especially for the brain and neurological system.

At first, Carole protested. Jerry had been tested for celiac disease, she said, and he did not have it. But after I explained that gluten sensitivity and wheat allergies were different than celiac, they agreed to give up grains.

Long story short, after about a month on a wheat-free diet, Jerry began improving. His trembling hands were steadier and his brain fog and memory problems all but gone.

But the really interesting thing is that Carol also found relief from chronic headaches and anxiety. “I’m still a little skeptical that my problems were wheat-related,” she confided. “But ever since I gave up wheat, I feel so much better, less moody and happier.”

Giving up wheat doesn’t mean avoiding all carbohydrates. I recommend getting one-third of your calories from complex carbs, including gluten-free, organic grains, such as:

  • Rice, both regular and wild
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Montina flour for baking (Montina is a rice grass favored by native Americans)
  • Corn
  • Amaranth
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Oats (as long as they are not contaminated with gluten during processing; look for “gluten-free” on the label)

Put my recommendation to cook your own whole foods to work here, by discovering these gluten-free grains. So skip the prepared foods, many of which contain added and hidden gluten, and focus your diet on gluten-free whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and lean protein.

Even if, like Carol, you’re not convinced that wheat can cause health problems, go gluten-free for thirty days and see how you feel. I’d say there’s a good chance you’ll never want to eat wheat again.

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